Alison Barrett writes:
In the era of global boiling, experts have warned that climate mitigation and adaptation must be integrated into the design and building of the 1.2 million homes the Federal Government wants to see finished by 1 July 2029, as well as associated developments.
They have also called for health and health equity considerations to be factored into the Federal Government’s housing plans, announced last October in the National Housing Accord.
“If these new homes are built in a business-as-usual fashion, they will significantly increase national greenhouse gas emissions,” Dr Jason Alexandra, Kate Lawrence and Professor Mark Howden recently wrote in The Conversation.
With Australians projected to live longer in the coming decades, as highlighted by Treasurer Jim Chalmers in the lead up to the release of the Intergenerational Report today, it is more important than ever to consider equity and climate in housing and development plans.
While being optimistic about the future, Chalmers said in a press conference this week that “we need to adapt and understand the big challenges which are underway in our economy and our society, and the Intergenerational Report will help us do that”.
“One of the reasons we [the Labor government] are optimistic about the future is if we get the policy settings right in this defining decade then we can be major beneficiaries and not victims of the big shifts underway – and climate change is one of the most important of those. So we see energy policy, net zero, becoming a renewable energy superpower – we see the vast industrial opportunities there to strengthen our economy and to lift living standards for our people.”
Sustainable housing and housing security – including affordability, accessibility, sustainability, longevity – are vital for physical and mental health, as are all the planning and infrastructure decisions that will accompany the new homes.
If governments and industry fail to apply an integrated health equity and climate lens on building new homes, then we risk continuing to negatively impact some populations disproportionately.
“People in the poorest neighbourhoods live in the worst quality housing – poorly insulated, badly designed, with few trees and limited access to public green space, far away from needed jobs, education and services and poorly served by public transport,” Dr Rebecca Tooher, Director of Policy and Advocacy at South Australian Council of Social Services, told Croakey.
The poorest neighbourhoods are also often located in areas that are at higher risk from the disasters, such as heatwaves, bushfires and floods, that are increasing because of climate change, Tooher said.
“We know that this makes a major contribution to the poorer health outcomes we see among people with low incomes.”
First Nations’ knowledge
It is critical to have Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people “sitting around the table and having input into these discussions and decisions” about issues such as housing and climate, according to the CEO of Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory (AMSANT), John Paterson.
This is particularly true in central Australia, from where Paterson was speaking to Croakey, and where housing infrastructure is not compatible with extreme climates.
Aboriginal Elders have a lot of knowledge and expertise when it comes to where to build – if people start interfering with sacred sites, water tables and aquifers, “it’s going to disturb the balance of nature and science,” he said.
Paterson urges all agencies – government and non-government alike – to “ensure they have First Nations’ representation” when it comes to making decisions about mitigating and adapting to climate change.
He urged governments to consider appointing Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander leaders on national climate agencies.
Location and access
Tooher told Croakey that SACOSS is concerned that urban infill strategies, if done hastily, may decrease green space, and that it is critical to consider location and access to services when building new houses and developments.
“If proposed incentive payments releasing land for development bypass existing planning controls or bring in new housing developments ahead of proper provision of social infrastructure, it risks trapping people in under-serviced localities at some distance to accessing what they need and being potentially more vulnerable during national disasters,” Tooher said.
Dr Lucy Gunn, senior research fellow at RMIT, echoed Tooher’s sentiments. As well as ensuring houses were built to energy efficient and sustainable standards, it was important for them to be built in a liveable location with shops, schools, services and public transport, she said.
This will be good for health equity as it will enable people to access education, employment, healthcare and other necessary services.
The National Housing Accord and National Housing and Homelessness plans “allude to this idea that new houses should be close to work, schools and transport,” Gunn said. This implies, particularly in places like Sydney and Melbourne “that those houses are going to be apartments” because there is limited available land for houses in those that are close to necessary infrastructure and services.
Therefore, when considering climate mitigation, adaption or sustainability, apartments also “need to be designed in a way that is quite flexible so that they can be adapted” across life-courses and different accessibility needs.
Social determinant of health
Research by SACOSS and others has shown that people who are renting have worse health outcomes and use more acute health services than homeowners, according to Tooher.
“We need more public and community housing – both to assist those most marginalised in the housing market, but also to boost supply and decrease rental prices across the market. A significant proportion of the new housing must be public and community housing, and a further proportion incentivised to be below-market price housing – so-called ‘affordable housing’,” Tooher said.
She urges health sector leaders and policy makers to “remember and continually argue and advocate for more affordable better-quality housing for all if they want to make a difference to health outcomes for those doing it toughest in our community”.
Tooher said that “fixing the housing crisis benefits everyone by reducing the pressure on the health system caused by inadequate housing at the same time as seeing environmental benefits and building climate resilience.
“Housing solutions should not privilege the investment benefits of housing investors over the wellbeing of people in our communities.”
A key lever for ensuring housing is equitable, sustainable and climate-friendly is for policies to be integrated between all governments and across sectors, according to Gunn.
She would like to see housing policies integrated with other policies “that can impact how people live their lives and their health”, including transportation and urban planning policies.
“One of the greatest levers for increased health actually comes from all the other sectors like transport,” she said.
Building a resilient community that is more socially connected is also important, Gunn told Croakey.
Resources such as those developed at the Australian Urban Observatory can help guide planners and policymakers who are seeking to improve the health and liveability of cities and neighbourhoods.
Retrofitting existing homes
Wendy Hayhurst, chief executive of Community Housing Industry Association, told Croakey via email that while the Federal Government “made a good start” by allocating $300 million for electrification and energy efficiency upgrades of social and affordable housing in the May Budget, “we will need a greater level of ambition” and grants to support “all new social and affordable housing achieving zero emissions”.
In addition, she said we need a wide-ranging retro fit program to decarbonise existing social and affordable housing.
Hayhurst suggested we look to the United States and “take a leaf from the playbook of Joe Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act and see this as an investment, not a cost. The dividend will be lower emissions, a permanent reduction in energy bills for people on the lowest incomes and improved health outcomes”.
Also important to consider is that “new builds represent only a very small segment of the housing market”, which therefore makes it easier to ensure that these houses meet effective climate mitigation and adaption requirements, according to Tooher.
“Meeting this requirement for new builds does not excuse governments from dealing with heating and cooling standards for existing housing,” she said.
“Investing rapidly in significant energy performance retrofits and household electrification will be a highly effective way to relieve pressure both on the cost of living for householders and on the electricity grid, and help with achieving our net zero targets,” she said.
Tooher added that “a net-zero emissions future is not possible without the electrification and retrofitting of existing housing stock – new builds alone will not be enough to get us there.
“This is an opportunity for governments not only to create new jobs, but to transition existing jobs into a cleaner and greener future”.
Read the story in Time here.
Read the article here.
See Croakey’s extensive archive of articles on housing security.